Thursday, 26 February 2015

Émilie du Châtelet - Madame Pompon-Newton

Émilie du Châtelet was well known for her love of fashion, jewellery and pretty things. Voltaire nicknamed her "Madame Pompon-Newton" and indulged her penchant. The ascerbic Mme Du Deffand reproached her with living beyond her means to keep up appearances, making herself ridiculous with her profusions of "frisure, pompons, pierreries, verreries". Mme de Graffigny could hardly contain her surprise when she saw her jewellery, particularly the snuffboxes:

 She had known Mme du Châtelet when she had only one tortoise-shell snuff-box; now she possessed "fifteen or twenty of gold, of precious stones, of beautiful lacquer, of enamelled  gold, a new fashion which was very expensive, and incense-boxes of the same kind, one more magnificent than the other; jasper watches with diamonds, needle-cases, and other wonderful things ; rings containing precious stones, and charms and trinkets without end.(Hamel, p.175-6).  

The inventories

Few of Madame du Châtelet's personal possessions survive, but some clues can be gained from the inventories drawn up at the time of her death.  There are two surviving inventories, one for her Paris hôtel in rue Traversière, which she shared with Voltaire, and one for the apartment in the palace at Lunéville where she died.  The October 2012 sale at Christie's included copies of both (Lunéville (Lot 29); rue Traversière (Lot 31).  The Parisian inventory, has been  published by Theodore Bestermann in Voltaire's correspondence and is concerned mainly with  Émilie 's debts, together with a summary catalogue of books from the library.[Appendix D93, The complete works of Voltaire: Correspondence, vol. 95 ed. Theodore Besterman) (Geneva, Institut et Musée Voltaire, 1968].

The Lunéville inventory is more revealing for personal items.  A second partial copy is conserved in the Départmental archives for Meurthe-et-Moselle (cote 10 B 411) which has generously made available a facsimile copy on the internet. There is also an excellent (but anonymous) blog, that provides a transcription and commentary. The various possessions are enumerated in their different categories -  clothing, books, writing materials and jewellery.

(Arch. dép. Meurthe-et-Moselle, 10 B 411/1)
Eleven pages were devoted to clothes, the most valuable of the dresses estimated at 200 livres.  Exotic materials abound: "gauze", "taffeta", "striped taffeta"; "satin", "black satin", "apricot and silver satin", "green and silver watered silk ("Moire").  Other fabrics I don't know - ?possibly particular styles of silk or cotton: "Seville" -  patterned with little flowers ("drap de Séville à petits bouquets" ) "Persian"  - with gold flowers ("de Perse avec des fleurs d'or") ;"Tuscan" - in raspberry pink ("de Tocanne en cramoisie") Not bad for a woman in late pregnancy.  To say nothing of the shoes, hats, bodices and  sleeves.

According to Elisabeth Badinter  besides the impression of luxury given by her clothes, Émilie's status as a woman at the forefront of fashion is confirmed by the many suppliers to whom she owed money.  Among those cited are  jewellers (Girost, l’Empereur, Hébert, Fayolle, Spote, La Vigne, Le Brun, Le Roy),  silk and lace sellers (Gaucherelle,  Boivin);  "marchandes de mode" (Alexandre, Quiret, Duchapt) and perfumers (Dulac Vigier) [see Elisabeth Badinter, p.48-51]. 

A second section of the Lunéville inventory enumerates items of jewellery, which included a diamond necklace and further set of diamond earrings and pendants, each valued at 10,000 livres.  Most striking among the jewels are the snuffboxes remarked upon by Mme Graffigny - Émilie owned over thirty at the time of her death.  In her discourse "On happiness" she waxes lyrical over the joys of snuffbox collection, which is enhanced by the fact a "mediocre fortune" ensures each acquisition is valued to the full:

There is no doubt that physical needs are the sources of the pleasures of the senses, and I am convinced that there is more pleasure in a mediocre fortune than in great abundance.  A new snuffbox, a new piece of furniture or of china, is a true delight to me but if I owned thirty snuffboxes, I would be less appreciative of the thirty-first (In variant texts, 300 and 301). 

Selected Philosophical and Scientific Writings
Introduced by Judith P. Zinsser and translated by Isabelle Bour.  University of Chicago Press, 2009.p.359.


 Meurthe-et-Moselle Departmental Archive:
Inventory after  the decease of Émilie du Châtelet (12th September 1749 and 8th April 1750).

"Identités vestimentaires: costume et politiques" [Wordpress blog]

Christie's, Paris, Sale 3532, 29th October 2012:
Lot 29:  Inventory from Lunéville..  Price realised:  £2,250

Madame du Châtelet gave birth to a daughter on 3rd September at the palace of the duc of Lorraine at Lunéville and died a few days later on 10th September. On the following day, following standard legal procedures, official seals were placed on the apartment she had occupied.  The marquis du Châtelet and Voltaire had already departed for Cirey. The inventory was drawn up in the presence of representatives of her two adult children Marie Gabrielle and Florent Louis du Châtelet as well as of the pathetic new-born "demoiselle du Châtelet fille mineure agée de huit jours".  Also present were Sébastien Longchamps, Voltaire's secretary and Margaret Leblan the wife of the marquis du Châtelet's maître d'hôtel.

Christie's, Paris, Sale 3532, 29th October 2012:
Lot 31:  - Inventory for Madame du Châtelet's hôtel in the rue Traversière.
 Voltaire later took on the entire lease for this property and installed Mme Denis there, but there is not a lot to see now:

"Émilie Du Châtelet (1706-1749): une femme de sciences et de lettres à Créteil"
Catalogue of an exhibition held at the Bibliothèque Universitaire, Université Paris 12, 18th October -16th December 2006
(p.52 - for quotes from Mme Graffigny and Mme Du Deffaud)

Elisabeth Badinter, Madame Du Châtelet:  La femme des Lumières  Catalogue of an exhibition held at the Bibliothèque nationale, 7th  March  – 3rd June 2006, p.216
quoted in a Masters thesis by Sarah Lebasch , nt.268

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